A national signing day without fax machines and a printed national letter-of-intent?
The days of using a pen and paper to sign a letter of intent -- as Jamie Wood did for Ohio State in 2009 -- could be coming to an end
Believe it, that day could be coming.
For years, football prospects have been celebrated on the first Wednesday of February as they typically sat in their high school auditorium, gymnasium or library and signed a national letter of intent to their college of choice.
However, the whole process seems to be something straight out of 1986. With advances in technology – not to mention the push to go green and save the environment – the entire signing process could be moving to automation via the internet.
Yes, these kids will still be able to “stage” a signing day ceremony with a pen and a piece of paper so their families and local media can record the event for posterity. But the act of signing with the school could all be done with an electronic signature online.
The National Letter of Intent program was created by the commissioners of the major collegiate athletic conferences to oversee the signing process. That program is housed within the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
“It’s up to the member institution how they want to distribute the NLI to a prospective student-athlete,” said Susan Peal, who oversees the National Letter of Intent program. “Our member institutions populate the NLI electronically. They can e-mail it on to the athlete. He or she has to sign it, but it could also be an electronic signature. It doesn’t have to be pen to paper. It just has to be a replica of the signature.
“For years, we have not required a paper copy. If institutions wanted to use an electronic form to get it to the athlete and then to get it back from them, that is all perfectly fine.”
Up until the last few years, colleges overnighted packages containing the letters of intent. The process has progressed to the point where many schools now send e-mails with PDF files containing those forms. But that still means they need to be printed out, signed and either faxed or e-mailed back on signing day.
“A lot of times, our institutions will send the NLI electronically,” Peal said. “They will print it off, sign it, scan it and e-mail it or fax it back.
“(Sending hard copies) is not a requirement. We encourage our institutions to do this the most efficient way and do it electronically.”
Mark Ouimet has worked in football operations in schools in Michigan and Mississippi and currently serves as the assistant director of football operations at Akron. He said it only makes sense to streamline this process.
“In terms of sending it electronically, we don’t have to ship the materials anymore,” Ouimet said. “We can just e-mail them. That saves time and that’s not only for us. They don’t have to be home and things don’t get lost in the mail. You can send it to the kid’s e-mail or the parents’ or both. To get it back, they fax in the NLI or they scan it back in and send it in through their e-mail.
“The day of mailing the letters is done. Everybody wants everything right now. It’s easier on us and the kid.”
Ouimet said he has not seen the online signature process in action, but figures that will be the next step.
“We haven’t done that yet, but I wonder if it will go that direction in the next year or two,” he said. “It will be fax-free at some point. It’s coming.”
He also predicted that it will take a few years to roll it out completely, however.
“In certain areas, it will take longer,” he said. “Technology takes a while to get to some places.”
It’s estimated that major colleges with broad-based programs spend upwards of $20,000 simply on the mechanics of sending, processing and transferring letters of intent.
Shamaree Brown, a compliance director with the Atlantic Coast Conference, is charged with helping to process letters of intent for his conference’s member schools. He said it makes since to mitigate those costs by using available technology.
“You think about the paper that is involved and the university letterhead that the letters go on,” Brown said. “You add in the overnight shipping costs, that can be a huge cost to the schools. Now people are an e-mail away. It could be a big cost savings.
“It is also a time saving. You don’t have to have somebody watching the fax machines. It all goes through e-mail.”
Brown said an automated system would make it better for all parties involved. By rule, all letters of intent must be signed and processed by the conference office within 14 days of issuance and certification by a school’s athletic director.
“When the schools would get their letters-of-intent back, they file them,” Brown said. “But they also have to send the conference office a copy and it then goes into the NCAA database. It is a multi-step process in terms of moving paper.
“Here at our conference office, we have gone digital. We ask the schools to send them to us via e-mail. Even as recently as last year, we kept a hard copy of every letter-of-intent that came to our institiutions.”
So How Might It Work?
Eugene Byrd spent nearly two decades working in collegiate athletic administration. He previously oversaw the National Letter of Intent program and also served as an assistant commissioner for the SEC.
Byrd, a Birmingham resident and former Florida track and field All-American, has spent the last few years creating Esigningday. The idea is to digitalize the current paper-driven process so it's more efficient and saves costs.
“It has taken us 2-1/2 years to develop it,” Byrd said. “We just finished the last piece. We were at the American Football Coaches Association convention last week. We talked to a lot of football operations personnel about it.”
Byrd’s burgeoning company would charge a nominal fee of colleges, who could in turn use his web-based software program for all of their sports programs.
“It stores all the data in the cloud,” Byrd said. “It makes it simple to use for the student-athletes. It can be used on any mobile device – a cellphone, a tablet or even a laptop. We have a patented product that completes the same flow of the current system except it is all digitally based.
“The athlete would get it in his e-mail. It would explain what school sent it and what forms are enclosed. All he has to do is click the link and it opens up a document for him to review. Once he reviews, he can sign the document by using his finger. His parents sign the document, too, and they hit send and it’s done.
“From there, the conference validation is all in the same work flow. It’s faster, it’s in real time and it’s more convenient for the prospective student-athlete as well as the school.”
Byrd has been in touch with several major colleges that are interested in exploring his new process.
“We are talking with two schools in the SEC and two in the ACC,” he said. “We also have a Division II school involved.”
Fans who follow recruiting closely would be surprised to hear how involved the letter-of-intent process can really be, Byrd said.
“The coach submits a request to his school’s compliance office,” he said. “Compliance reviews the request and prints out the letter-of-intent. They attach the scholarship letter. They take it to the coach. He signs off on it and sends it on to the athletic director and get it signed. The financial aid office has to sign it.
“It comes back and they either scan all these things in or they put it in a package and overnight it. Then the kid has to figure out how to scan it and send it back. But our process allows them to sign several documents in four or five minutes. Right now, it could take several hours to process it all manually. The good thing is the coach gets the letters into his portal. He knows right away who has signed and who hasn’t.
“We also have software for team budget management so the programs know how many kids they can sign and who has to be renewed.”
Byrd said it makes no sense to use an outdated paper-based system when there are better alternatives online.
“These schools spend millions of dollars and have the most advanced set-ups to recruit these kids,” He said. “Yet when it comes to the most important part – where they sign the documents – they still use antiquated ways.
“I’m one of the few people who understands how the system works from start to finish. You have to get it back to the conference office within 14 days of issuance from the athletic director. Right now, when they get them in they have to gather them up and overnight them to the conference office or they scan them in.
“I’ve taken it from stage one to the end stage and made it very simple.”
The flexibility of the online system is also attractive, Byrd said.
“You can access the information from anywhere by signing into your portal,” he said. “This way, the conference can validate it the same day the kid signs it.
“But to me, the most important thing is a coach can adapt his strategy in real time. If he doesn’t get the kid he thought he was going to get and he has a scholarship available, he can go and sign another kid he has in waiting.”
Byrd’s process faced stringent review to conform to NCAA regulations. He said his process is secure and password protected.
“My aim was to make sure that the program had the utmost integrity,” he said.
From his time as an athletic administrator, Byrd knows that change can come at glacier speed. But he sees the advantages for all concerned parties – the athletes, their parents, their high schools, the colleges and the conference offices.
“Coaches are used to the old system and it is hard to move to a new system,” Byrd said. “But I’m telling you, it’s going to happen this year. I’ve been chipping away at that rock. I’ve seen bits and pieces fall away slowly.”